After losing one leg to cancer, Philip Krzyszton’s dog Nitro still competed in the Buffalo County Fair this month. “He just loves to show,” Krzyszton said.
by CHRIS ROGERS
From this angle, it is hard to tell Nitro is a tripod. His tail is wagging furiously. He presents a pine cone for his master to throw, and waits, panting, poised for the next chase.
“He lives and breathes fetch,” 16-year-old Cochrane-Fountain City student Philip Krzyszton said of his dog.
Nitro is so zealous about fetch that in wintertime he will literally make snowballs, Krzyszton said. “He’d dig around in snow piles trying to find a chunk of snow,” Krzyszton explained. “He’d find something to start it with, and then he’d roll it around with his nose.” Like a kid forming a snowman, Nitro rolls the chunks around until enough snow gloms on that they reach proper fetching size. “He’ll basically do whatever he can do to give you something you can throw for him,” Krzyszton said.
Nitro will play fetch for hours. The lab-border-collie mix has seemingly inexhaustible stamina. When Krzyszton and his brother drive the four-wheeler around their parents’ farm, Nitro always dashes along, keeping pace or chasing them down to the pond for a swim. “He just always has so much energy. That’s why I named him Nitro, because he’s always running around,” Krzyszton said.
Since Krzyszton was nine and Nitro a puppy, Krzyszton has been training Nitro for 4-H obedience competitions. The competitions have strict rules for everything from the dog’s leash — it must be six-feet-long exactly and made of leather or nylon or cotton webbing — to what kind of gloves the handlers can wear. Nitro and Krzyszton worked their way up from beginner levels, in which Nitro was tested on his ability to sit, stay, come, heel, and stand motionless while judges inspected him. Last year, the pair reached “pre-utility,” the second-highest level, in which dogs must follow silent, hand-signal commands from a distance, retrieve a sort of dumbbell while jumping over obstacles, follow signals to leap over the correct obstacle out of two possible obstacles, and sit motionless for three minutes — just to name a few of the exercises.
Compared to the lower levels, pre-utility asks a lot of the dog and its handler, Krzyszton said. “It’s a pretty big threshold to be able to cross,” he stated. However, Nitro and Krzyszton spent months practicing. When the judges’ scores came back after last year’s competition, they had done it. “Getting to pre-utility was a really big accomplishment for me,” Krzyszton stated.
Nitro and Krzyszton might have attempted utility, the highest class of obedience competition, this summer, but this spring, the boy noticed something was wrong.
“For a good while [Nitro] was not stepping on his left foot as much, and then he got to the point where he held it up in the air,” Krzyszton explained. “We were kind of confused about what it could be.” Nitro was such a stoic, pain-tolerant dog, they knew it was not nothing.
Philip Krzyszton’s mother, Kelli Krzyszton, said other animals on their farm had previously contracted anaplasmosis, a tick-borne illness that can cause serious muscle pain. They had Nitro checked for it, as well. He had the disease, and they started treating him for it, but it did not solve the problem.
Later in the spring, a chiropractor came out to the farm to treat the Krzyszton’s horses — yes, people hire chiropractors to care for their horses. Kelli asked the chiropractor to take a look at Nitro’s leg while she was there. “She told us we should probably get it X-rayed to see if it was a bone spur,” Kelli recalled.
They got the X-ray, and the veterinarians found a large tumor on Nitro’s upper left leg: bone cancer. “It’s unfortunately a pretty aggressive cancer,” Kelli explained.
“I was pretty sad when I found out about it because he’s seven years old, so he still had quite a while,” Philip said. “It was just something I never expected. So it was pretty sad, and I’m still pretty bummed about it.”
The Krzysztons decided to have Nitro’s leg amputated in June in an effort to stop the cancer. Kelli laughed at herself a bit for going to such lengths to save a dog. But it was not just any dog. “He’s pretty special,” she said. “He gets pretty close to people, so it makes it hard to not try to help him as much as we can … Now here we are doing what we can within reason to help him be here as long as he wants to be.”
Philip wondered, too, whether amputation was the right choice. What would Nitro’s quality of life be like after the surgery? “Is he still going to be able to do all the things?” Philip said, recalling his doubts.
However, Kelli said, “Nitro was pretty clear about the fact that he was not ready to go. Anyone who gets to know him will quickly see he wants to be here.”
After the surgery, Philip found his concern about Nitro’s ability to get around with three legs was misplaced. On one of their first trips after the amputation, Philip tried to lift Nitro into the truck. “He won’t let me help him at all,” Philip said. “The day after the surgery he was already jumping up on the counter.” If anything, the Krzysztons had to try to keep Nitro still so his wound would heal. On the farm last week, Nitro tore around the yard chasing down pine cones. He can still gallop on three legs nearly as well as four. Walking slowly is actually a little harder for him than running, Philip said, pointing out how Nitro has to bounce on his front leg with a little care and effort.
Nitro recovered so well, he and Philip competed in the Buffalo County Fair earlier this month. Nitro had to work hard to build up enough muscle to clear jumps with just one front leg, and he and Philip had less time to prepare, so they dropped down to a lower class in the contest, Philip explained. After the surgery, Philip didn’t necessarily think Nitro would be able to compete. “Even the day of the show, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take him,” Philip said. Just days before the fair, Philip got word that Nitro’s cancer had spread to his shoulder, above the amputation. “It was hard,” he said of the news. Maybe Nitro had already seen his last contest. “But then,” Philip said, recalling the morning of the competition, “when I opened the door, he just ran out and sat by the truck.” So Philip figured, Nitro really wanted to go.
The fair was a challenge. While Nitro had been able to leap over obstacles at home, during the competition there were a lot of walking and standing exercises leading up to the jumps — the kind of movements that were hard for the three-legged dog. By the time the jumps came around, Nitro was just too worn out to complete them. “It wasn’t his best day, but he still wanted to go,” Kelli said.
“He still did his best,” Philip said. “It was really heartwarming seeing him go out and trying and giving it his all, knowing what he went through,” he stated. Philip added, “Nitro, he just loves to show. He just loves doing it.”
The Krzysztons are trying a treatment for Nitro’s cancer. “Now, it’s just do the best we can and enjoy what we have left,” Philip said.